Dad made his passage to the next life at 1:18 am this morning, with Mom, Katy & Jeff & I present. It was a peaceful, awe-inspiring time. His breaths became shorter and less pronounced, in the way that the lapping waves on the shore — after the wake of a passing ship — become less pronounced and then fade entirely. His ship is now creating a wake in other waters.
On July 26, 1970, at the church of Saint John the Baptist in Excelsior, Minnesota, the Rev. Vincent O’Connor poured water over my forehead and baptized me in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
I’ve decided to make a point of celebrating the anniversary of my baptism. I guess Pope John Paul II thought this sort of thing was a good idea, as did a fourth-century saint:
We should celebrate the day of our baptism as we do our birthday! All Christians should reflect on the meaning and importance of their own baptism. – John Paul II, 1/12/1997
The first Christians had great spiritual celebrations on the anniversary of their baptism, which was the day of their dedication, the day on which they were consecrated to God. They took no notice of their birthday, for at birth we are not children of God, but rather children of Adam. So they celebrated the day on which they were made children of God, the day of their baptism. – Saint Caesarius of Arles (470-543 AD)
My mom is amazing. I’m the youngest of ten kids, and somehow she saved a box of various items from my baptism! I was digging through my books the other day and stumbled across all of this memorabilia… baptismal cards printed for the occasion; cards from godparents, family and friends; a telegram from my uncle; a burlap banner, complete with bright orange and green felt letters proclaiming a groovy Gospel message; a family Christmas card that was created after the event… My parents had the event filmed on Super 8 film and recorded on audio tape as well.
I have the script my parents wrote for the occasion (that’s right, they scripted the liturgy)… apparently it involved most of my nine brothers and sisters. And I have been given to understand that Fr. O’Connor played guitar during the celebration.
It was a tandem baptism, shared with good friends of our family, the Regans. Bobby Regan and I were both born around the same time, so the families decided to celebrate the baptisms together.
I was particularly moved by some of the notes I found among the archives:
from my godparents:
Dearest little Clayton,
We are so happy to be your godparents, and through you to reaffirm that we’ll go “one more round, mankind.” Your parents are beauties and you are blessed as they are blessed. Much love, Gordy & Grace
May he grow in wisdom, grace and age and be worthy of his earthly and heavenly family. Bob and Helen
from one of my aunts:
Dear Mary, Jim and children:
Thank you for a very wonderful day. It was an insight to generous, selfless, meaningful Christian lives. Gratefully, Pat and Gen
from a friend of the family:
Dear Mary and Jim,
Clayton has really come into a beautiful and loving Christian fellowship. He is a very lucky young man to have been received so well into his new community. John and I felt it an honor to be a part of your special day. Thank you for all the “giving” you have sent our way. Love in your family! Cynthia O’Halloran
and then the telegram from my uncle:
Stumbling across all of this is quite humbling. It’s hard to know how to express gratitude for such a great gift, given to me even before there was any way of responding. It reminds me of the very gratuity of God, the great economist of the heart… who doesn’t measure, or wait for any kind of response.
In his Letter to Families, John Paul II wrote profound things about the family as the lasting “horizon of one’s existence” and the relationship between human life and life in God:
It is for themselves that married couples want children; in children they see the crowning of their own love for each other. They want children for the family, as a priceless gift. This is quite understandable. Nonetheless, in conjugal love and in paternal and maternal love we should find inscribed the same truth about man which the Council expressed in a clear and concise way in its statement that God “willed man for his own sake.” It is thus necessary that the will of the parents should be in harmony with the will of God. They must want the new human creature in the same way as the Creator wants him: “for himself.” Our human will is always and inevitably subject to the law of time and change. The divine will, on the other hand, is eternal. As we read in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jer 1:5). The geneaology of the person is thus united with the eternity of God, and only then with human fatherhood and motherhood, which are realized in time. At the moment of conception itself, man is already destined to eternity in God. – Letter to Families, paragraph 9
All I can say is that I am very grateful for my parents. It would have been easy for them to have seen a tenth child simply as a burden or another mouth to feed. But instead they chose to see it as an occasion of joy and hope, and left all of these reminders behind for me to discover later.
So here’s to forty-five years of life in my earthly family, and in the family of the Trinity!
I saw Inside Out last night. It is a remarkable work of cinematic art. I don’t have time at the moment to write the review I would like to, but Steven Greydanus has more than ably said many of the things I would want to mention, and some that had not occurred to me. As I began thinking about the movie’s themes this morning, a passage from Henri Nouwen came to mind, which I had written down in my journal some twenty-four years ago.
“I tell you most solemnly, you will be weeping and wailing while the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy. A woman in childbirth suffers, because her time has come; but when she has given birth to the child she forgets the suffering in her joy that a man has been born into the world. So it is with you: you are sad now, but I shall see you again, and your hearts will be full of joy, and that joy no one shall take from you.” (John 16:20-22)
Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life. It seems that there is no such thing as clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of its limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness.
Joy and sadness are as close to each other as the splendid colored leaves of a New England fall to the soberness of the barren trees. When you touch the hand of a returning friend, you already know that he will have to leave you again. When you are moved by the quiet vastness of a sun-covered ocean, you miss the friend who cannot see the same. Joy and sadness are born at the same time, both arising from such deep places in your heart that you can’t find words to capture your complex emotions. But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to the day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us.
Henri J.M. Nouwen, Out of Solitude, “In Expectation”
A few further thoughts: Toward the end of the movie, there are moments that, while not in the least didactic, are instructive not just for children, but for all of us who share the human condition. Our lives are constantly marked by the reality of being in statu viae — “on the way”… In this life, we are never at home in the sense of a place of final rest. Our lives are shaped continually by hellos and goodbyes of various kinds — with other people, with places, and with places within.
While this is true of all people without exception, we sometimes feel isolated, believing that, while we can celebrate the hellos together, we cannot grieve the losses together (even with those we love and who love us). Yet sadness expressed can be isolation overcome. Paradoxically, grief shared can become sadness transformed and touched by joy, because our greatest need as humans is not to experience unqualified and perpetual joy, but to experience life in communion with others. If we understood this, and lived this, our relationship to the sick, dying, poor and elderly might be transformed. And with those relationships transformed, our world could be turned inside out, in the best possible sense.
1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”. (Canticle of the Creatures, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, New York-London-Manila, 1999, 113-114.)
2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
Today (at 11:45 am, to be precise), I turn 45.
If I were going to take my cues from the culture, I should be surrounding myself with black balloons and all sorts of birthday cards evoking nostalgia and/or grief. For all of the talk about being “forward-looking,” we sure spend a lot of time longing for the past.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in recent years thinking about our passage through time… especially as both my father and the man I consider one of my primary spiritual fathers passed from this life to the next. Experiencing these deaths, and especially being present at the side of my father as he took his last breath, had an unexpected effect on me. Of course I expected the grief and sense of loss. But what surprised me was the way it stirred up a desire for the life to come, enkindled, I’m sure, by the fact that both men had pilgrim hearts: They took great joy in this life but never forgot that they were still on the way.
About a year before he died, my dad sent me an essay he’d written in college about Robert Frost’s After Apple Picking, which includes this passage:
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Dad enclosed a short note with the essay, very matter-of-fact, saying he found it among some old files he had been sorting through. He didn’t need to say anything more; the consummate teacher, he allowed his own peaceful – and I might hazard to say joyful – entry into the next life to interpret the poem for me. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy this life, but he had tasted something more and wasn’t going to stick with the hors’d ouerves when an entire banquet was being laid out before him. As C.S. Lewis once put it,
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Or in the words of Saint John of the Cross:
I will never lose myself
for that which the senses
can take in here,
nor for all the mind can hold,
no matter how lofty,
nor for grace or beauty,
but only for I-don’t-know-what
which is so gladly found.
Or as T.S. Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets,
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass….
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
So I think my perspective on age is a bit different, a bit changed this year. If someone approaches me today and asks, “So how does it feel to be a year older?” I think I will respond, “The real question is: how does it feel to be a year closer to the life to come?”